The first time Adam tried Molly, he was 19. He loved it.
“I was visiting friends in Boulder for a Sound Tribe Sector 9 show at Red Rocks,” says Adam, who was raised in Chicago. (All names have been changed.) He was new to the electronic music scene, but not naïve about its reputation for drug experimentation. “I kind of expected when I went to visit that I’d be trying something new.”
Twenty minutes before the concert started, he was popping a nondescript pill. At first, he felt nothing. But as the concert continued, the colors of the stage became amplified and his feelings of self-consciousness slipped away. “I was happy. I started to just smile and dance to my own drum,” he remembers. Six years later, Adam is still “rolling”—that’s slang for the use of Molly, or MDMA, a purportedly pure form of ecstasy or 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine—two to three times a month, or every day if he’s at a music festival.
He has company. Despite its suspected role in four recent deaths and an accompanying rash of frightening headlines —and clear medical evidence that Molly isn’t as harmless as her name suggests—interviews with a half dozen users suggest the drug’s young demographic isn’t about to give it up. And why would they? Molly, its users say, is cheap, easy to access, and more fun than alcohol, weed, and cocaine. Plus, pop culture has virtually given its blessing—Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and even Madonna have recently been singing Molly’s praises.
The upshot: a huge spike in reported use over the last year alone. A comparison of the 2012 and 2013 Global Drug Surveys, conducted by an independent drug-use data agency, shows just how popular Molly has become. In 2012, 26.5 percent of U.S. respondents had tried MDMA in the last 12 months. In 2013, the number jumped to 60.9 percent. (Over the same period, those who reported having tried cannabis rose from 69.3 percent to 88.4 percent.) A report by the Drug Abuse Warning Network shows that MDMA-related emergency visits have doubled since 2004. According to the World Drug Report, somewhere between 10 to 25 million people have tried the drug in one form or another.
Molly isn’t new, of course. The drug of choice for 1980s clubgoers, it gained a sticky reputation as “speed with a psychedelic and empathetic twist.” But in the last week, the deaths of three young adults linked to its use—two of whom, a 20-year-old and a 23-year-old, were at an electronic music festival in New York called Electric Zoo—have put the drug front and center in a spate of negative publicity. (The third and final day of the concert was canceled as a result.)
Nor is it the sole province of electro-crazed club kids. In fact, hard data and anecdotal evidence alike suggest that Molly’s user base is young but broad—and surprisingly unfazed by its recent bout of bad press.
Leo, a 25-year-old biochemist from Rhode Island, decided to try it a few years ago for his birthday—something he assumed would be a “once in a lifetime” experience. But Molly was even better than he’d imagined. “It just felt so good,” he recalls. “It enhanced the whole experience of being at the party, being drunk.” A horrible two-day hangover kept Leo from doing it again right away—but not for long. “The more I did it the less hungover I’d feel. Now I do it all the time,” he says. “You don’t lose control. Molly doesn’t ever affect me in a way that scares me,” he says. Plus, at roughly $10 per gram, it’s a cheaper habit than drinking or smoking pot.
Just last week, Leo was rolling on Molly while at Electric Zoo in New York. But even after attending the very concert where two people died, most likely from some version of MDMA, Leo says he'll be rolling again this weekend.
Sarah, a 26-year-old from Maryland who earned her Master’s degree in public health with a focus on substance abuse, says she uses Molly regularly. Thirty minutes after taking it for her first time (while working in England at the age of 22) Sarah was happier than she’d ever been. “Don’t you just wish it could stay like this forever?” she told her friends, something they still laugh about today. Now, working as a public health professional, she says it’s not uncommon to hear her colleagues talk about doing the same thing.
The hysteria surrounding these deaths, Sarah believes, is misplaced. “No one deserves to die just because they want to experiment or have some fun and were unlucky to get like a bad batch of pills,” she says. “The U.S. drug policy and public opinion tends to get stuck on this ‘drugs are bad’ kind of moral crusade, when there are practical things we could be doing to make them less harmful for people. I feel like that's the conversation we should really be having.” Sarah, like many other Molly users, doesn’t think that abandoning recreational drugs completely is the answer. “People do drugs because they are fun, and they're probably not going to stop…so we need to focus on how to make it less dangerous.”
Chemically speaking, Molly is an amphetamine with a twist of phenethylamine (a hallucinogen). Flooding your brain with dopamine and serotonin, it not only heightens feelings of euphoria, but empathy and love as well. (“When you’re rolling on Molly even a touch on your shoulder feels like a full body massage,” Adam explains).
While not addictive, it has side effects—big ones. Short-term, they include teeth grinding, dehydration, anxiety, insomnia, fever, and loss of appetite. But there are more serious effects, too. Hyperthermia, uncontrollable seizures, and a spike in blood pressure so severe it can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.” A sudden drop in serotonin levels once the euphoria dissipates leaves users with a paralyzing onset of depression—a hangover so excruciating its earned the nickname “Suicide Tuesdays.”.
Adam’s comedown experience, and that of nearly every user interviewed for this article, was horrific. He became “tweaky” in his movements—grinding his teeth uncontrollably and licking his lips. When he tried to go to sleep later that night, he couldn’t. “It was impossible. My mind was racing and I was super aware of my surroundings—noises my friend was making on the couch, lights flickering. I felt paranoid,” he recounts. But after a few days, he felt normal again. And the side effects—albeit excruciating—didn’t stop him from rolling again. The high, he decided, was worth the pain.
As Molly’s popularity skyrockets, the ability to regulate it becomes nearly impossible: a fact that officials say results in “bad batches” of Molly which can contain anything from heroin to cocaine.
Natalie, a 23-year-old interior designer, knows that story all too well. Her first experience with MDMA— or what she thought was Molly—ended with her in the fetal position for 48 hours, shaking and vomiting intermittently between hallucinations of evil faces flying at her. It wasn’t until days later, when Natalie recovered, that she heard the news. A girl who’d rolled from the same batch she did ended up in the hospital. Toxicology reports revealed that the drug (which had the “consistency of powdered sugar”) wasn’t Molly at all—it was meth.
The next time she decided to roll it was a few years later, with someone she trusted who brought pure Molly. She still does it today, but only occasionally, and with caution. “I did it recently at Lollapalooza, and it was the best I’ve ever had,” she said. “I still get freaked out every time I do it, so I do it in moderation. You never know. Lots of things you take could kill you.”
Sadie, a 24-year-old graphic designer from Reno, Nevada, has a purely positive story. She took it with a few friends at a birthday party this past year, and had a blast. “It was just an all around great experience,” she says. “Everything was wonderful. I was so happy and loving everyone.” Although the hangover was bad, Sadie, who now lives in New York City, says she wouldn’t hesitate to try it again. When I ask her if the news of two deaths at Electric Zoo will have any impact on her Molly use, she’s defiant. “I don’t think it will deter me from using it. It might just make me more cautious of who I’m getting it from, and keep me from doing an excessive amount,” she says.
Taking Molly is a big risk—but so is taking other things, Sadie says. “You can die from alcohol. It’s like with any drug, things can happen. You take that risk.”
James, an Iraq war vet in his late 20s, was introduced to Molly while stationed in Europe several years ago. A fun first experience (“It felt great!”) prompted him to continue taking it over the course of the next year. After receiving an honorable discharge from the military, he only takes it occasionally, every few months. “I enjoy it because I get emotional. Not in a sappy, ‘Oh my God I totally love you way,’ but in a way that reinforces other aspects of my personality. I don't make up emotions; I just get emotional about things that already exist. For instance, poverty bothers me. A lot. When I'm on Molly I might cry because of it. I don't tell strangers that I love them. I don't feel up the walls. I'm just myself, in emotional technicolor.”
Who doesn’t want that feeling?